Photo: George Burns
O: How is the high-tech world—cell phones, online social networks, the Internet—affecting teenage sex?
Dr. Berman: There's a new phenomenon called sexting. A recent survey done by Teenage Research Unlimited found that 22 percent of girls have sent nude or seminude images of themselves to boys on their cell phones, and not necessarily to their boyfriends, even though 75 percent of teens understand that this behavior may be risky. Facebook and other networking sites can get really provocative, and the next tier is the media and MTV, where images of women are very sexualized. So it seems normal to put yourself out there in an overtly sexual way. The social norms have changed, and social access has changed. It's a perfect storm.
O: How can a mother protect her daughter from the dangers of early sex?
Dr. Berman: It's natural to talk about the bad stuff: pregnancy, STDs, pedophiles, rapists, death. And that's not to be ignored, but it's also important to talk to her about having a sense of control and pride over her body, and to let her know there are ways she can make herself feel good before she's ready for sex, like self-stimulation.
O: Seriously? Mothers should talk about masturbation?
Dr. Berman: If you want to raise a sexually healthy daughter, yes. That may mean attending to your own sexual health. A lot of women grew up with the idea that masturbation is wrong or dirty. I can't tell you the number of women who were told not to wash "down there" with their hands, to use a washcloth—a separate washcloth.
O: When do you start discussing sex?
Dr. Berman: From the time kids are very young, even toddlers, you should use the correct terms for body parts and normalize self-exploration, not slap their hands away. And you don't have just one talk. By age 10, you should start talking about safe sex.